Anatoly Zak has an interesting story about Russia’s planned successor to the Soyuz crew capsule on his site Russianspaceweb.com, and as usual it provides a wealth of information. What is particularly intriguing about new spacecraft, labelled PTK NK, is the fact it is currently being designed to make propulsive landings much like the SpaceX Dragon, which it somewhat resembles. One key difference is that it would use a cluster of solid rockets with thrust control mounted under the base of the capsule, jettisoning the heat shield just before touchdown on four deployable legs.
A successor to Soyuz has been in the works for a long time, during which it has undergone numerous changes in both its basic design as well as the launch vehicle which would carry it. The one constant has been the lack of funding to begin the project in earnest, but that may soon be changing. The Russian space program is currently undergoing quite a revival, receiving an inordinate amount of attention from President Vladimir Putin, who visited the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far east earlier this month, and used the occasion to promise an investment of $52 billion in the Russian space program between now and 2020.
Due to its far eastern location, Vostochny does not have a suitable zone for conventional parachute only landings like those employed for the current Soyuz descents at the vast Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Consequently, if Russia maintains its intention to launch and return cosmonauts from the new spaceport, it either has to work with a tightly controlled landing zone, or move to water based splashdowns in the Pacific. The design for the spacecraft is clearly not set, and and during his visit, Putin told the press that ” Most probably, according to specialists, they will come down on the ocean. So our cosmonauts will splash down rather than touch down.” Putin was apparently referring to the current smash and roll for Soyuz when he mentioned “touch down.”
If the PTK NK ( which desperately needs a better name) design ultimately settles on propulsive touchdown, one wonders what influence the new SpaceX Dragon 2.o , which is due to be unveiled later this year, is exerting on that decision. Even if never explicitly acknowledged, it seems possible that in actually going forward into development with a concept which has been around since the earliest days of the space age, rather than just producing viewgraphs, SpaceX may have already shifted the paradigm, forcing others to follow or risk being perceived as “so last generation.” Peer pressure is not just a problem for children and young adults, and with national space program’s inevitably justified partially on the basis of maintaining “prestige” it cannot be dismissed as a driver.
Propulsive landings on planet Earth are hardly the sole province of SpaceX. Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace are well into testing and flying their respective unmanned systems, and Blue Origin is presumably somewhere along the same path with New Shepard. All of the above owe a debt of gratitude to the DC-X program which showed the way, but it may be that just as the ultimate result of the RLV work taking place with Grasshopper is likely to force others to follow suit, the new Russian crew vessel could be further evidence of the SpaceX effect, otherwise known as leading by example.